Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Geek Visits Silicon Valley

I’ll be honest, before my trip (and even well into it!) I had little conception of California’s geography. San Francisco was in the middle and LA in the south, and there were a lot of fruit farms. I wasn’t sure where Silicon Valley was, and I had no idea it was so close to San Francisco (its heart is within an hour of the city).

So after crossing the bridge across the bay, I was greeted by a quick succession of legendary towns and had to make a quick re-evaluation. I decided to delay my visit to the city by one day and instead check out some of the sites in the valley.

I wanted to check out the garages where famous startups began, and I wanted to see the endless berms of green grass in technology parks. So many of these stories from the 60s through the 90s have passed into legend, here was a chance to check out where it all happened. The best place to get a sense for the scene in the 80s is at There are hundreds of hilarious and interesting stories; some purely entertainment and some fairly technical.

I collected a set of 15 addresses I wanted to visit. When I started sorting through them on my GPS, I was first struck by how centralized they were, none more than 10 minute from one another. Although they are technically separate towns, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, and others form one perfect stretch of suburbia. There are downtown sections, but these are tiny, hardly citylike. They’re swallowed up in suburbs.

The birthplace of Silicon Valley (actually in the shed out back!)

Although the roots of Silicon Valley stretch back to the early 20th century, the first flagship ‘startup’ was Hewlett-Packard, which was formed in 1938. Initially manufacturing oscilloscopes, HP expanded into calculators and then computers. Although the company today has a reputation for making crappy laptops and cheap plastic printers, that’s a relatively recent innovation (according to HP veterans, the company was gutted by Carly Fiorina starting in 1999). Early on HP had a reputation for engineers-first, humane management, decentralized leadership, and so forth. Steve Wozniak was thrilled to be employed at HP in the 60s. All that started in a garage in Palo Alto, near Stanford University. This was pretty awesome to see. It was in a very nice neighborhood just a few blocks from the trendy ‘downtown’ Palo Alto area.

Google’s first office (also Paypal and Logitech)

In that downtown area was another one of my stops: the first headquarters of Google (and also second office of Paypal and Logitech’s office – what occupants)! There was a street festival going on for many blocks around this modest building. It’s now a T-Mobile store and a restaurant, the history completely disappeared. I think there may be a sad gap in the timeline of historic sites, with many of these legendary buildings disappearing or being altered.

The original site of Xerox PARC, 1970-77 (building probably replaced)

Next it was time for some office parks. My number one favorite institute of the time period (and perhaps the most legendary) was Xerox PARC. There’s a great history in the book Dealers of Lightning. In short, from 1970 through 1977, PARC essentially invented the modern computer. Notable inventions included ethernet, laser printers, bitmap graphics, modern word processors, the modern user interface, object oriented programming, and so on. They also unified many earlier inventions, such as the mouse ,into a single package, the Xerox Alto. (The other legendary innovator was Douglas Englebart at SRI).

PARC headquarters after 1977 (to present)

Then, in an unforgivable crime, corporate headquarters ignored all these developments and they languished – until Steve Jobs saw them and copied everything, leading eventually to the Macintosh. There are stories of Xerox engineers crying with anger when they found out they had to demo everything to Jobs. There’s a great movie about this, Pirates of Silicon Valley, that’s well worth watching. It has some great acting and focuses on the relationship between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

This machine actually did the ‘merge’ step in merge sort!

The next morning I visited the Computer History Museum. This was one of the best museums I’ve visited, though probably not interesting to a general audience. There’s a ton of artifacts there, ranging from slide rules through supercomputers, ‘minicomputers’ and the personal computer. It was great to see some legendary systems in person. They had the PDP-8, the first widely-purchased, affordable computer (affordable for universities!); many of the first hackers used these computers as they learned to program.

There was also a Cray-1, the first supercomputer (even when I was first learning about computers, Crays had a reputation as “the fastest computer”, Cray himself died when I was a kid).

Inside the CDC 6600, designed by Seymour Cray. The fastest computer of its time (and hand wired…)

Among older systems there were many IBM punch-card machines from the 30s. In a sense these weren’t really “computers,” rather they performed simple operations to collate data in punchcards. For instance, they would sort the punchcards or discard invalid ones. What’s interesting is that the sorting systems prefigured many of the modern computer science sorts: there was a ‘radix sort’ and ‘merge sort’ machine, but human operators needed to handle some of the steps.

Babbage’s Difference Engine. Calculations on left; output on right.

The most famous exhibit in the museum is a working construction of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine. This was an incredible device: Babbage constructed, purely in his head and through sketches, a machine that could tabulate polynomial functions. There are something like 8000 parts. Not only that, it could output the results to a tape, word-wrap, change fonts, etc. Purely mechanically! It was strange hearing about this device, because it has many parts which correspond to modern computers (registers, for instance). The difference engine was not constructed in Babbage’s lifetime, and there are only 3 modern constructions in existence.

The Apple I. Only the board was sold, other parts had to be added manually.

Then there were personal computers. I saw some I was personally familiar with and had used (such as the earliest briefcase-sized laptops), or Macintosh. There was also an Apple II, and an Apple I autographed by Woz (the Apple I and II were designed by Steve Wozniak and marketed by Steve Jobs).

Example of ephemera: core memory from the Apollo moon mission

There were critical pieces of computer history: cabinets that represented parts of ENIAC, JOHNNIAC, UNIVAC, part of the SAGE system that assured IBM computer dominance in the 50s, a unix manual from 1973, and other essential parts of computer history. Then there was a variety of ephemera: analog computers, sexist ‘recipe computers’ from the 60s, Google’s Street Maps car, and so on.

Omigod! The Xerox Alto!

For me, the highlight was getting to see a Xerox Alto. As I’ve alluded to, this has reached mythical status for me, so seeing the machine in person was incredible. It was sitting all alone, and although there was a little poster behind it, I think they glossed over it’s importance a bit.

The famous Los Altos garage where Apple began

Then it was on to some more sights. This was Sunday afternoon, so things were quiet around town. I drove down to Los Altos to check out what is perhaps the most famous garage in history, in Steve Jobs’ childhood home, where Woz designed the Apple I and where Apple was born. It was in a regular old neighborhood, not a particularly nice house, and it felt strange to be sitting outside where someone lived, so I quickly left.

Then I checked out the Google campus, which was so big that no building really stood out, and drove through some tech parks, also checking out the first headquarters of Intel (a seminal moment for chip manufacturing). These parks were quite a shock for me, I’ve never seen so many major companies so close to one another: Skype, Facebook, Google, Tibco, Symantec, Siemans, the infamous Zynga. Around nearly every corner it seemed there was a major tech company.

The weather here was great, the surroundings comfortable. It seems like a nice place to live – and I guess everyone agrees, because the cost of living is incredibly high! I’m glad I got to check out this haven for geek culture.

Route 1 and US 101 down the California Coast


Windmill at John Muir House NHS

My goal after visiting Redwoods National Park was to drive down the legendary California coastal highway until I hit San Francisco; there’s two highways: US 101 and California State Route 1. When 1 splits off 101 it closely follows the coast – 101 remains inland.

I ended up zig-zagging back and forth on these roads, which are roughly 30 miles apart. First I went along the coast, then cut inland to meet up with a friend from Hilo. Then down the interior and a cut out to Point Reyes National Seashore, then down the coast to Muir Woods, and inland to detour around San Francisco.

Bodega Head State Park, along the coast

I took one day to go down from Redwoods to Ukiah, about 80 miles north of San Fran. This was in part due to some long stops, and in part due to the horrible roads. Horrible, not because of their state of repair, but rather because of the type of driving they necessitated. I’d heard CA 1, in particular, recommended as a beautiful drive. For me it was simply terrifying.

The speed limit is typically 55, but because you’re turning practically all the time (usually 15 or 20 mph turns), I averaged just 30 miles per hour. The road jackknifes all over; it really does follow the coast as closely as possible. You’re constantly slamming on the breaks, swerving back and forth, etc. The road isn’t properly graded for some of these turns, so for instance the road will tilt so you lean outwards as you go around a turn.

Add to this the California drivers, who are the worst I’ve encountered on the trip (to make a generalization). Particularly in Northeast California into the Bay Area, drivers regularly tailgated, didn’t allow merging onto highways, and were generally aggressive.

I’d considered hitting all my coast sites in one day, but decided due to the nature of the roads, and the size of Point Reyes, to split them into two days.

Before I visited Point Reyes, I stopped in a small town near Santa Rosa, Bodega Bay. This has a nice state park and beach; the town is famous as the site of the Hitchcock film The Birds. The star, Tippi Hedron, apparently still returns on a regular basis to sign autographs. Here I met a great-aunt and heard some interesting stories: escaping from East Germany in 1948, for instance. She had many similar mannerisms to my grandmother, so it was a unique visit.

Down the cliffs to the lighthouse

Point Reyes, a National Seashore, is an irregular peninsula that juts out from the coast like a fishhook. In fact, it acts as a hook for ships; there were 132 known shipwrecks along the coast here. For this reason, one major site in the park is a lighthouse. As if the shape of the peninsula weren’t bad enough, it’s also considered the windiest and foggiest point in the US (I don’t know exactly what that means – if it’s only along coasts or in the entire country). It was a beautiful day when I pulled into the seashore, but after driving 20 miles to the lighthouse it was cloudy and there was dense fog. It was a 1 mile hike out to the lighthouse, from the parking lot, and down a huge set of 300 stairs. Before this was a national park, the lighthouse keepers rigged up a set of steep wooden stairs and rails. They also had ladders down to the water so they could rescue sailors lost at sea – a dangerous task.

Many men stationed at the lighthouse were killed in storms after losing their footing or when their rescue ship overturned; others were driven mad. The lighthouse was in operation for over a hundred years, until 1975, when the Coast Guard installed an automated beacon. The wind felt really intense – some unexpected gusts knocked me sideways.

Looking back up through the fog

This road, about 10 miles out to the lighthouse, was similar to CA 1, but in horrible repair. It was the most godforsaken road I’ve driven yet. Never again!

The only campgrounds in the seashore were backcountry, meaning you had to pack all your gear in. They were semi-improved: pit toilets and a water pump were available. Because they were close to SF, they charged $20 for this. This was my first overnight of the trip. I took a scenic route, hiking up and down a ridge to reach the camp, about 7 miles. The weight of all the gear was definitely different from the daypacks I was used to, and I felt really out of shape. At least at the top of the ridge, the air was cool and clear, and the setting sun hit the trees just right. It was a wonderful hike, and good exercise.

The Sky Trail to the campground

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a sleeping pad with me. It got cold, and the chill from the ground just wicks right into your body. It wasn’t a restful night, and I woke up at 6 to hike the 5 miles back to my van.

The other reason I left early was to get a head start on Muir Woods. This is a National Monument about 10 miles north of San Francisco. It’s a Redwood grove that was purchased in honor of John Muir (while he was still alive, in the early 20th century). Being so close to the city, it’s also a tourist trap. I grabbed the last parking space when I arrived at 9:15. When I left at 11, there were cars lining the road for a mile. Of course, I hit on a beautiful Saturday at the end of summer, when the crowds were probably worst.

Muir Woods National Monument, around the corner from San Fran

For all the cars and people in the parking lot, the monument itself was surprisingly serene. There’s a few miles of widely traveled trails; the grove of Redwoods is probably 2 square miles. It’s quite beautiful, more beautiful than any grove I’d seen in Redwoods National Park. And yet – I don’t know if it was the trail or what, but it felt very artificial. The forest seemed ‘tended,’ not like what I’d seen in miles of forest. It felt more like visiting a garden than actually going into wilderness. I enjoyed my time at the park, but it’s a peculiar hybrid.

Leaving the park, there were appalling traffic jams on CA 1 heading north; it felt like all of San Francisco was fleeing the city. People sat in their Mustangs and SUVs waiting for traffic to move; I’m just glad I was going the other way!

The bay area, for those not familiar with the geography (as I was not), forms a sort of backwards “G.” San Francisco covers the northernmost tip of a peninsula; north is the Golden Gate with its famous bridge (and the Muir Woods). The eastern shore of the bay is a composed of Richmond, Oakland, and various other cities. They form a huge urban sprawl that stretches down to San Jose. South of San Francisco is Silicon Valley: Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Cupertino, and so forth.

Heading out from Muir Woods I visited a small historic site, “Rosie the Riveter.” This has a few locations in Richmond, and commemorates the World War II home front. Richmond swelled in size from 20 thousand residents to 130 thousand during the war. During the peak, its shipyards were turning out more than 1 ship per day; over 700 were produced during the course of the war. One ship was built in 3 days.

This is a new site, and the visitor center was unique in that it was located in an industrial park. Everything was immaculate, probably just a year old. There were two films which I watched, both extremely well produced (on par with Whitman Mission in Washington). But the site itself is quite small. One of the volunteers at the visitor’s center was a ‘Rosie’ during the war – she was 90 years old!

Visit the woods, then the house

Next I continued my loop down the east bay to another small site, John Muir House NHS. Unlike Muir Woods, this site is the house where Muir did the bulk of is his important writing from 1890 until his death in 1914. Muir, of course, is considered the father of the National Park system. It’s a nice site, but the 10 thousand square foot house is incongruous with our mental picture of Muir. Also unexpected by me: palm trees!

This tree was planted by John Muir

Alongside the house is a lone Sequoia planted by Muir, now about 50 feet tall and in good condition. It’s an interesting link to the past. Also curious, there’s a small adobe pueblo on site that predates Muir. By sheer coincidence (Muir inherited the house from his father-in-law), the pueblo belonged to Juan Vicente Martinez, for whom the town was named.

I left this site in mid-afternoon and finished my loop down the east bay, by crossing over into Silicon Valley, stopping for the night in Mountain View.

Across California to the Redwoods


A fallen redwood. Backpack for scale.

So far, I’d only seen the dry northeastern part of California. Now, I headed west toward the famous Redwoods.

Leaving Lassen in the early afternoon, I was curious about a sign I’d seen on the highway on the way there, advertising ‘Subway Cave.’ This was in a national forest and I pulled into an empty parking lot to check it out. It was a self-guided tour and I was happy to check out another cave (also another lava tube, actually) after my recent explorations at Lava Beds NM.

Guess why it’s called Subway Cave?

A few things were different about this cave. Lava Beds’ caves had a typical height of just 5-6 feet and were in a relatively well-traversed area. This cave was enormous, and in what seemed the middle of nowhere. There were plaques along the route (a half mile loop). Reaching the mouth of the cave, the plaque said “Subway Cave was first discovered by Europeans in year X. It was known to Native Americans before that, but they didn’t use it. They believed the cave was occupied by an evil creature best described as an ape-man.” Not what you want to read before heading alone into a cave! Not to mention, I’d been reading Michael Crichton’s Congo, a book where evil apes attack people.

The other eerie thing about this cave was that it was so broad in parts – maybe 40 feet across and 20-30 feet high – that even my powerful headlamp would not always illuminate the walls. Thus, I felt a bit more vulnerable. You wouldn’t think it would be this way, that narrower spaces would be worse, but although those could induce claustrophobia they limit the possibilities that surround you in the darkness!

After Subway Cave (no ape-men sighted) I crossed through Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. This was your normal backwoods highway, with lots of twists and turns. There must have been forest fires nearby, and I passed through the dreary town of Weaverville, isolated in the mountains, at 5pm. The sky was orange and sooty; the sun a sick red color. I felt like I’d arrived in Mordor (or Beijing). Perhaps the people in this town live in an eternal twilight, never seeing the bright light of day.

It quickly became a race against the setting sun, as the roads here could only be covered at 30-40 miles per hour and I fell behind schedule. I lost the race, but at least got to see bats swooping over my windshield, illuminated against the last purple backdrop before night.

My destination was a Walmart in Eureka, 30 miles south of Redwoods. When I arrived and opened the door, I was struck by the sweet, pleasant smell of wood chips – the smell of forest fires. Unfortunately, this was a Walmart in a mall (a Mallmart), and was patrolled by mall security. I was woken up in the middle of the night by rapping on the window. When I opened the door, I feared the worst (police?). It was a mall cop, and he politely directed me to the ‘sleeping area’ of the mall – there were some tractor-trailers pulled up there.

A typical redwood grove.

Redwood National Park is an unusual setup, and it was especially difficult for me to come to grips with it beforehand. It’s actually a conglomeration of a single National Park and multiple California State Parks, administered semi-independently. The State Parks are nestled within the National Park so it’s quite confusing. When I arrived at the campground (a state park) it was nearly full, only 3 spots remaining. This in spite of the $35/night fees, the highest I’d yet seen! I paid for two nights, but found the price ridiculous. I guess people will pay it, though (just like I did), and I can’t begrudge the state its income.

This was a sort of pond in the river. It was good to take a quick bath.

In the morning I quickly arrived at Redwoods, found a suitable hike, and set out. This was an 18 mile out-and-back hike to ‘Tall Trees’ grove. Tall Trees had been governed by permits, no more than 50 people per day allowed in, and then the gravel road leading to it was shut down. The long hike was the only remaining option. It mostly traced the route of Redwoods Creek, a shallow stream with broad gravel banks. There were a few bridges that apparently are removed seasonally (there is heavy flooding in the winter).

I took a dip in the water, happy to scrub off a few days worth of cave-grime and sweat.

A typical part of the trail. Some bridges were missing planks (or they were rotten).

There are two exceptionally large trees on the west coast: Redwoods and Sequoia. (There’s a variety of slightly smaller, though still gigantic trees, like Spruce and Douglas Fir). Sequoias are the biggest trees – apparently a measure of volume – while Redwoods are the tallest. Some Redwoods can reach 380 feet. That’s almost 400 feet!

Looking up: tough to visualize how big the tree is.

It’s very difficult to get a sense of Redwoods’ height. To start with, they’re enclosed in a forest, so long-distance views are rare. They’re also not much bigger at the base than some of the Spruce I’d seen. Finally, the first layer of branches tends to obscure the rest of the tree. So, although the trees are indisputably tall, it’s not quite as awesome as you’d expect. Still, you get glimpses of trees, here and there, that seem like something from another reality.

A burl/root bundle

For me, even better than the pure height of the trees was the forest they grew in. To start with, Redwoods may reproduce with pinecones, but they also have burls, large chunks of wood near their base that can form another tree. So many of the trees split apart at the trunk; sometimes an original tree can fall and cause a perfect ring of clone trees to form around its base. This leads to Redwood groves. There’s also an ecosystem around the trees: lots of ferns, some taller than me and most reaching my chest. It feels primeval, standing in the forest dwarfed by ferns; the Redwoods stretching upwards elegantly. Many of the trees are hollow or heavily charred at the base, but still living. Thus you can stand inside a living tree.

Steller’s Jay. Fearless and with saurian mannerisms.

The next day I’d planned on doing some more hiking, but it all finally caught up to me. I’d been hiking for about a week straight, averaging roughly 15 miles per day, and it was time for a break. I started out and turned around after 2 miles, grabbed some snacks and settled in to read for the afternoon. The campground, at least, was nice, surrounded by redwoods and with a little brook right next to my site. So my stay at Redwood was less eventful than I’d expected, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Of all the parks I’ve visited, I feel I only scratched the surface of things to do at Redwoods – there are many groves, seashores, canyons, and other sites that i didn’t get a chance to see.